Whither Science?

“Scientific thinking has to be taught, and sometimes it’s not taught well … Students come away thinking of science as a collection of facts, not a method. (Occidental College’s Andrew) Shtulman’s research has shown that even many college students don’t really understand what evidence is. The scientific method doesn’t come naturally – but if you think about it, neither does democracy. For most of human history neither existed. We went around killing each other to get on a throne, praying to a rain god, and for better and much worse, doing things pretty much as our ancestors did.

 Now we have incredibly rapid change, and it’s scary sometimes. It’s not all progress. Our science has made us the dominant organisms, with all due respect to ants and blue-green algae, and we’re changing the whole planet. Of course we’re right to ask questions about some of the things science and technology allow us to do. ‘Everybody should be questioning,’ (geophysicist Marcia) McNutt says. ‘That’s a hallmark of a scientist. But then they should use the scientific method, or trust people using the scientific method, to decide which way they fall on those questions.’ We need to get a lot better at finding answers, because it’s certain the questions won’t be getting any simpler.” “The Age of Disbelief” by Joel Achenbach, National Geographic, March 2015.

This month's cover story in the iconic National Geographic magazine.

This month’s cover story in the iconic National Geographic magazine.

When I was a kid in CPS elementary schools (Bright and Horace Mann) on the south side of Chicago, we studied the following on an almost daily basis: reading, writing, spelling, math, science, social studies, geography, art, music, penmanship, physical education, and, in the upper grades, French.

I think most of us remember when geography silently bit the dust. With much less fanfare, cursive writing and penmanship disappeared more recently. Did you vote on that? I sure didn’t. But gone they are and, from everything I can tell, actual teachers were not involved in any of these decisions.

I think all of us are aware, and have been for some years, of the marginalization of the arts … precious little music and visual arts are present in many of our elementary schools, despite the strong link between music and academic success.

As a child, I found value in all of these studies. They lent a certain purpose to my classmates and me. Some of us adored one thing … some another. There was always an entry point and, for each child, a place to shine.

Oddly, I’m reminded of a political saying right now.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Was it that way for penmanship, geography, and the arts? No one spoke out? There certainly was no national debate that I’m aware of.

In short order, physical education became less and less a feature of an elementary education, and social studies and science took smaller and smaller seats at the table, all to the detriment of our children’s physical and intellectual health.


At the risk of sounding like one of those older people who mourns what used to be … “when I was a child, we walked 12 miles to school every day in a blizzard” … I must admit, I regret the passing of the kind of Renaissance education we were privileged to have and that today’s children will probably never know.

Being well-rounded, grounded in skills, ideas, and information from a range of disciplines, put us on a good path in life and gave us options, connection points for what could become passions later in our lives.

And that brings me to wonder, “whither science?”

When I was a kid, Sputnik launched, and in a frenzy of catch up, there was a sense of urgency attached to the study of science and math. We had fallen behind Russia, and our leaders, particularly President John F. Kennedy, had the vision to recognize that the future lay with science, technology, and engineering and that a nation that fell behind in STEM (although the acronym didn’t exist then) was essentially doomed to second-class status among the community of nations. We were too proud for that. And so we threw everything we had into the fight, including over 1 billion dollars for the National Defense Education Act of 1958 to provide scholarships for aspiring scientists, mathematicians and engineers. Not too many years later in 1969, when I was a young adult, we were the first country to put a man on the moon. The wonder of it!

Sputnik Launched a STEM education renaissance in the late 50s. What will it take today?

Sputnik Launched a STEM education renaissance in the late 50s. What will it take today?

The United States blossomed. New technologies came out of the space program that were able to fuel entire industries. Prioritizing science paid off in global political capital and domestic prosperity, and our focus on science expanded humankind’s understanding of this world and the cosmos. It gave us things we take for granted today, a transformed world. The fact that you’re reading this now proves my point.

We had no idea how lucky we were with Sputnik. The subsequent panic turned out to be an enormous boon. The fear of falling behind the Communists induced the federal government to pour a river of money into science and math education. The result was a generation of scientists who gave us not only Apollo and the moon, but the sinews of the information age — for example, ARPA that created ARPANET that became the Internet — that have assured American technological dominance to this day.” (Charles Krauthammer, “Sputnik’s Impact on American Technology.” October 5, 2007)

Not shabby outcomes, by any means. Especially that “generation of scientists” bit.

Fast forward to today.

Whither science?

Parents do you know how much science your children are getting on a daily, weekly, yearly basis, in their schools?

In most schools, precious little, and definitely significantly less than we did all those decades ago in a much less technology-driven world. But how could that be?How could we let that happen? Surely today’s children need to be learning more science rather than less.

In 2001, some political types and some business types decided that our nation was at risk. In fact, they’d been saying that for years … since 1983. And once they held the power, their solution was to legislate that all children would be responsible for making annual yearly progress (certainly, a noble goal) but … in two subjects only, math and English language arts. Science would come later and would never be given the attention that math and ELA enjoyed. Everything else was superfluous. I won’t go into the personal and political links between George W. Bush and the McGraw family of McGraw Hill Publishing fame that seems to have fueled this movement. But suffice it to say, the interests of the business community were well-served by what was to follow.

For it came to pass that No Child Left Behind became the law of the land in 2001. And Pearson PLC, for example, went from a relatively modest British publications company in 2000 (owner of Penguin books and the Financial Times) to the world’s largest education company, an assessment behemoth that now rather shockingly even controls teacher licensure in some states. Pearson tied its fortunes to NCLB, bought up a lot of American companies, and by 2011 60% of its income came from North American education. In fact, in an interview conducted on the radio show CounterSpin, author Stephen Metcalf recounted, “Only days after the 2000 election, an executive for publishing giant NCS Pearson addressed a Waldorf ballroom filled with Wall Street analysts. According to Education Week, the executive displayed a quote from President-elect Bush calling for state testing and school-by-school report cards, and announced, ‘This almost reads like our business plan.'” So, this is another one of those follow the money stories. And NCLB insured that there were potentially billions to be made in testing American children. Your students, teachers. Your children, parents.

In a 2014 post in Psychology Today entitled “Anti-Intellectualism and the ‘Dumbing Down’ of America” author Ray Williams pointed out that

  • After leading the world for decades in 25-34 year olds with university degrees, the U.S. is now in 12th place. The World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. at 52nd among 139 nations in the quality of its university math and science instruction in 2010. Nearly 50% of all graduate students in the sciences in the U.S. are foreigners, most of whom will be returning to their home countries;
  • According to the National Research Council report, only 28% of high school science teachers consistently follow the National Research Council guidelines on teaching evolution, and 13% of those teachers explicitly advocate creationism or “intelligent design;”
  • 18% of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, according to a Gallup poll;
  • 74% of Republicans in the U.S. Senate and 53% in the House of Representatives deny the validity of climate change despite the findings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other significant scientific organization in the world; and
  • A 2008 University of Texas study found that 25 percent of public school biology teachers believe that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously.

How did we fall so far behind? Answer: We are teaching far less science than we used to. And this is particularly true in schools serving less advantaged children. A 2007 report issued by the Center on Education Policy reports that

  • In districts with at least one school identified for improvement, corrective action or restructuring, 43% reported decreasing instructional time for science, with the average decrease being 94 minutes per week.
  • Since the enactment of NCLB, as officials from one school in Chicago explained, “the school sets aside a block of time for reading each day and tries to fit in at least 30 minutes for all other disciplines … but our major focus is reading and math.”
Girl uses wheel of inquiry in an after school science program at Roosevelt Elementary in Chicago Heights.

Girl uses the wheel of inquiry in an after school science program at Roosevelt Elementary in Chicago Heights.

In many schools, the reading block is sacred and takes up the bulk of every morning. Science is often at the end of the day with announcements, early dismissals, and in the primary grades, an extended time for putting on coats and boots during the winter months, shaving as much as ten minutes from the little time available for science instruction. In the lead up to standardized testing periods, which happen multiple times during the school year these days, teachers may be requested not to teach science or social studies. In some schools science and social studies alternate quarters, to provide longer blocks of time for their study. But that means that instruction in those subjects is not consistent throughout the school year.

Conclusion: What we are compelled to measure by high stakes standardized tests is what gets taught. Everything else is marginalized … including science, except under visionary principal leadership or strongly principled teachers who have a passion for the subject. While we weren’t paying attention or participating in the decision-making, the fear and zealotry engendered by high stakes standardized tests eroded science instruction.

If a robust science/STEM program is conspicuously absent from your school, or from a wide swath of schools in your community, you might well question how that will impact the future opportunities available to students for high paying jobs in what will arguably be the major growth sector of the economy for the foreseeable future. And how will a similar curtailment of science instruction across our 50 states impact the entire nation in the 21st century?

Time to wake up, America, and push back. Just as Sputnik engendered a burst of support for STEM subjects in the late 50s, which led to fantastic scientific discoveries and economic opportunities in the following decades, we need a similar national commitment to STEM, if we are to remain economically and politically viable in the future, a leader nation, not 52nd in the pack.

In my next post I’ll look at why shortchanging time for science and STEM in our schools now is likely to have a devastating impact on our future prosperity.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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Filed under education policy, NCLB, STEM education, Uncategorized

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